Written by Erin Talbot.
Most people are familiar with terms like racism and sexism, which are used to describe discrimination experienced based on your race and gender, but have you heard of ableism? Ableism is defined as discrimination against people with disabilities, including those experiencing mental health challenges. Ableism affects the lives of people with disabilities in many ways, be it looking for a job or even in our day to day conversations and the language we use. Today I’m going to focus primarily on ableist language towards people who experience mental health symptoms/illnesses and developmental disabilities.
(There’s debate around the term disabled in itself and some people prefer terms like neurodivergent as oppose to neurotypical when discussing mental health issues. Some people also prefer person first language, such as “person with disability” as opposed to “disabled person”. It’s important to respect a person’s right to self-identify, but since I’m speaking in broad terms on a diverse population I’m going to continue this article using the terms I prefer as a person living with disability.)
Language is a powerful tool in either combating or perpetuating ableism. We use words to express how we understand the world and people around us. Mental health conditions are so stigmatized and misunderstood that it’s common for people to use ablest language as insults and to mislabel a variety of behaviors with clinical diagnosis. Such language is so embedded in our day-to-day conversations that it often goes unnoticed. An example of ablest language could be calling someone a “schizo” when you think they are behaving strangely or using “retarded” or “crazy” as an insult.
While these expressions might seem like harmless exaggerations, they send an invalidating message to those of us who are suffering from mental health problems, further stigmatizing mental illness by using it as a negative descriptor. Once, when I was a teenager, I used the R-word to describe things I didn’t like. My friend informed me that his twin brother was intellectually disabled and he was bothered by me using that word. I’ll never forget that moment because up until then it had never occurred to me how disrespectful it was to say stuff like that. From then on I made sure not to use the R-word and I started learning about other ablest slurs. I messed up a lot at first but made sure to apologize and correct myself when I accidentally used derogatory language. Years later I can’t even imagine saying it and cringe when I hear other people use similar slurs.
Considering 1 in 5 people are living with a disability of some kind, I think it’s important to speak assuming the people you are with know and care about someone with a disability or may even be disabled themselves in some way. It might seem difficult at first but it gets easier with time and you may even find your vocabulary expanding as you learn new descriptive words! Making the effort to speak intentionally has helped me reflect on and challenge the way I view the world and extend my empathy to those who need it the most.